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Thousands of veterans failing in latest battlefield: college

Lucas Velasquez

Lucas Velasquez takes part in a medical training drill performed outside Fallujah. Velasquez, a Navy corpsman, is carrying the stretcher in the front.

During a pair of six-month stints in and around Fallujah, Iraq –- then a fiercely volatile city –- Navy corpsman Lucas Velasquez came to know about life.

And death.

From late 2005 through early 2007, not long after nearly 100 U.S. troops and more than 1,350 insurgents were killed in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury, Velasquez routinely rendered emergency aid to wounded Marines while ducking bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and IED blasts. In uniform, Velasquez was smart and quick, adept at practicing field medicine literally while under the gun.

In 2007, after retiring from the Navy, Velasquez, then 23, enrolled at Columbus State University in western Georgia. He promptly failed four of his first six classes.

Lucas Velasquez

Lucas Velasquez enrolled at Columbus State University in Georgia after retiring from the Navy. He is pictured on the bottom, second from the right, with his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers.

"It was a struggle," he said.

Velasquez hadn’t been in a classroom for more than five years. Instead of taking strategic lecture notes or studying highlights in the syllabus when prepping for exams, he scribbled nearly every word his professors uttered and tried to absorb every fact in his textbooks. Deeper, there was a vast cultural chasm between other freshmen and the survivor of multiple firefights and risky missions.

“At 19, I was in combat as opposed to trying to go find a party,” said Velasquez, injured before he came home. “They really don’t realize how precious life can be, how it can go away in the drop of a dime. They’re more worried about what they’re going to be wearing to school tomorrow, or the spring break that’s coming up. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just two different people.”

Among the approximately 800,000 military veterans now attending U.S. colleges, an estimated 88 percent drop out of school during their first year and only 3 percent graduate, according a report forwarded by the University of Colorado Denver, citing a March 22, 2012 study by the Colorado Workforce Development Council.

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Scores of former servicemen and servicewomen who are among the best in the world at defusing bombs, tracking the enemy, patching bloody limbs, or negotiating with wary Afghans become futilely lost when trying to author an English paper.

Indeed, the vast, life-experience divide between war veterans and teens fresh out of high school – all now sharing the same classrooms – can make the scholastic transition awkward and arduous for ex-soldiers, said Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, a support network for ex-military college students. SVA now has chapters on more than 500 campuses

Mix in the fat gap of time between the vets’ high school days and their attempts to blend into college life and the reasons for the dropout rate become even more obvious.

“They are (taking) academically rigorous courses after being removed from the academic setting for so long,” Dakduk said.

“I didn’t know how to study,” Velasquez said of his first months at Columbus State. “In the military classes (we had taken), they spoon fed you everything because they didn’t want you to fail. It was a struggle going from a structured lifestyle to one where everything is on you.”

A number of colleges – Dakduk mentioned the University of Arizona, Syracuse University, Rutgers University, Purdue University, Columbia University and Dartmouth College – offer well-crafted services that truly help retired military folks thrive in the college classroom.

But some schools falsely sell themselves as “military friendly” simply to attract veterans on the G.I. Bill when, in reality, they don’t have the adequate infrastructure or counselors to help former soldiers succeed, Velasquez said. After his initial failures, Velasquez had to independently seek external tutoring. He eventually boosted his grade point average to 3.8.

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Under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, the federal government covers up to 100 percent of veterans’ tuition and fees. That money goes directly to the colleges, making the ex-servicemen and servicewomen financially attractive enrollees.

Earlier this year, SVA revoked chapters at 26 for-profit colleges that failed to meet the organization's requirements, mainly having a student-veteran – not an administrator – run the chapter. Those booted schools included the Art Institute of New York City, Brown Mackie College in Akron, Ohio, DeVry University in Orlando, Fla., ECPI College of Technology in Raleigh, N.C., and ITT Technical Institute in South Bend, Ind.

The misleading, so-called military-friendly sales pitch made by some colleges to attract vets, Velasquez said, is a big reason for the dropout rate.

“There was a concern around certain predatory, for-profit schools using our brand to legitimize their programs,” Dakduk said. (He added that better statistics are needed to precisely calculate the veteran dropout rate; the post-9/11 G.I. Bill was enacted three years ago, which means, Dakduk said, not enough time has passed to gauge its impact on today’s enrolled ex-soldiers.)

In August 2011, Velasquez transferred to the University of Colorado Denver after getting married. (He had been to Colorado earlier in his life and purposely picked the state for a new start). UCD, he learned, had a three-tiered system to help vets transition from military to college, stay in school and then move from graduation to the workforce. As part of that program, the school assigns an upperclassman to incoming ex-military students to mentor them socially and academically. It’s based on a similar program used at U.S. military bases.

“What we try to facilitate with that is the camaraderie -- the community -- because that’s one of the biggest things (ex-military) people miss,” said Cameron Cook, head of UCD’s veteran student services. “It’s one of the hardest things: missing your team, your friends in the military. That’s really hard to let go.”

A retired Marine, Cook soon e-mailed Velasquez and invited him to participate in the program.

“This is perfect, just what veterans need, something that helps them take that veteran experience and use it in college,” Velasquez said.

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Cook and his team also try to help vets who carry to campus “the invisible injuries” of war –- post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When they get out of the military, the average student veteran is so focused on transition into college, finding a place to live, getting on the G.I. Bill. They’re very busy reintegrating,” Cook said. “But then, after that first year, everything kind of slows down and that’s when the shadows come in.”

The “shadows” of PTSD, including rampant anxiety and sleeplessness, often are triggered by daily stress – for example, by exams.

“We see a big increase [in students presenting with PTSD symptoms] right at midterms and it grows exponentially until finals,” Cook said.

“One student told me that at the beginning of every semester he feels like he’s getting ready to go on a deployment,” Cook said. “And you can parallel finals to being like miniature battles.” 

“And I’ve had other students say: ‘I don’t know why I’m stressed about a biology test when I was in Fallujah. Why am I stressed about this when I’ve been through so much previously?’ The reason is: the Fallujah experience gets linked to the stress of midterms. They already have stress and then academic stresses just build on that.”

Or, as one retired non-commissioned officer who attends UCD summed up the challenges of the veteran-college experience and high dropout rate: "I was the man in the military. We had so much responsibility [overseas], people's lives were on the line. Now I'm sitting next to an 18-year-old and I'm struggling to keep up with him in this class."

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.” 

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